Mikaela Erskog

[intro]UHURU NOW: what is to be done at our universities is a series of conversations by academics, thought-leaders and debaters, which seeks to archive contemporary dialogue on transformation and decolonisation at higher education institutions. The series aims to shift the discourse, introduce fresh ways of thinking and provide meaningful debate on issues around transformation in order to drive social change.[/intro]

Browsing the “What to Wear” section of the 2016 graduation booklet for the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR) conjures musky images of upturned noses, downward looking glares and the rising warmth of flustered neo-colonial stewards. The undercurrents of Western civilising practices cloaked in neo-liberal political correctness are the norm.

Women are advised that traditionally the attire of the day are that of your typical waitress or the white woman at her desk job in 1994 Unites States: “Long sleeve white or black dress, white blouse [the feminised shirt] and black skirt, Or white blouse and black trousers [and] stockings to match”. And be warned ladies: White or black shoes with reasonable heels (maximum 7cm) are essential as “It is important to note that should you not be wearing sensible shoes, you will not be allowed on stage.” As if that crosses Beyoncé’s mind as she preps for a two hour serving of fancy footwork.

Never forgetting to do the obligatory gesture of inclusivity, it continues with, “The University is aware of the many cultures and traditions inherent in its student body. Graduands/Diplomands are welcome to wear garments which reflect those cultures and traditions.” Yet, in keeping with the ethos of the civilising mandate, the closing remark must retain some semblance of Order: “Extravagant or fancy hairstyles for men or women are out of keeping with the dignity of the Graduation ceremony.”

In the most recent years, students and family members have broken with the stiff and ‘proper’ ceremonial aesthetics and gestures. From wearing brilliantly coloured African print dresses to personal isiXhosa salutations, ironic heel clicking to swaggering across the stage, graduands have in many ways captured and reinvented the moment in ways that reflect their individuality and nod to their family histories.

However, as disruptive as one can be in the actual ceremony within the building, the physical exterior manifestation of the up-there-on-the-mountain, celebration-of-colonial-domination remains. The only building on the highest, most visible point in the area, it looms omnisciently almost above the town. At a safe distance from the all the [black] people. Come graduation, this spectre of settler colonialism even seems to envelop the entrants and slyly claim the achievements of all the graduands.

Whilst the graduation booklet can be written off as arbitrary or inconsequential, it raises some interesting ideological and aesthetic concerns. Graduation is a microcosmic instance where we continue to march to the steady beat of Western colonial legacies.

Radical Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire stated that, “for people, “here” signifies not merely a physical space, but also an historical space.” A physical space is created out of ideas that emerge in particular historical periods according to the ideas and values of the existing societies. The particularities of a physical space can allow for certain social interactions to unfold and nurtures the existence of certain bodies (people). It is key to identify how physical space operates to generate particular social interactions and venerate particular ideas in often subtle, hidden ways because that allows for us to understand how some flourish or dominate within specific contexts/spaces. As French theorist Henri Lefebvre explained it, “Homes and schools (from nurseries to universities) exist not in the abstract, but in time and space. Within the structures of domination they function largely as agencies which prepare the invaders of the future.”

Out of necessity for a majority black population emerging out of almost a century of codified racial segregation, historically white universities (HWU) need to be decolonised because they function for the benefit of the historically white (read: cis-heterosexual, English-speaking, masculine male) subject. Re-imagining physical space by either re-making, re-organising, re-naming or reinventing the spatial relations by making visible what new concepts should govern the interactions in the space.

In the case of the UKCAR, the graduation ceremony is held in the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument, which was built in the 1970s during apartheid South Africa. For the black child whose mother tongue is isiXhosa, a contemporary disjuncture arises in this space as the purpose of the Monument is imbued with a particular reading of the historical moment when British settler colonialism arrives in this region. According to the Grahamstown Foundation, the Monument was built to commemorate what it recognises to be two key areas “that benefit all South Africans – the English language, and the democratic tradition.”

Some troubling assumptions underlie this quote. Firstly, the phrase clearly centres the historically white subject – the “invaders of the future” – as the basis for the assumption but simultaneously attempts to generalise the particular. Secondly, the English language does not benefit all South Africans. Throughout the 2015 student protests, there had been consistent critiques of the way in which English is used to exclude and deligitimate ideas and practices that are not codified in other languages. English has in many ways remained a tool of exclusionary practices.

I could go on further tangents about how democratic traditions have existed within African societies or how the very idea of a British democratic tradition has never achieved democratic social practices. However, what is so bitterly vexing about the idea behind the Monument is that in one clean swoop the violent history of settler colonialism is both obscured and justified.

In a world where black existence was “out of keeping with the dignity” of the colonial and apartheid projects, how do we decolonise space in a way that actually benefits all South Africans? (We can debate what ‘benefit all’ means another day). Do we continue to celebrate the achievements of black peoples through the idioms and aesthetics of Western colonisers? If we understand the graduation ceremony to be about recognising and honouring the intellectual, spiritual and (in some cases) physical labour required to become a black degree holder, how do we celebrate in ways that reflect the spirit of the worlds we inhabit and hope to bring into being?

One of the first things that can be done is to take history seriously. Interestingly enough, the very idea of the graduation ceremony is popularly understood to be a Western conception, with its historical location being 1432 Oxford University, with the passing of a statute that required all bachelors to deliver a speech in Latin. Few popularly imagine the ancient scholarly traditions of Islamic schools that developed the idea of intellectual graduation, let alone the African centres of learning that we might look to for contemporary inspiration. As Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani explained in a keynote address at Makerere University Research and Innovations Dissemination Conference in 2011:

“You can write a history of higher education in Africa that begins a millennium ago. It is now well known that there existed centres of learning in different parts of Africa—such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, Al-Zaytuna in Morocco, and Sankore in Mali— prior to Western domination of the continent. And yet, this historical fact is of marginal significance for contemporary African higher education. This is for one reason. The organisation of knowledge production in the contemporary African university is everywhere based on a disciplinary mode developed in Western universities over the 19th and 20th centuries.”

(Sidenote: I am weary of proposals that only look to North Africa. Building new universities named “Tehuti University (TU), after the Kemetic or Ancient Egyptian deity associated with wisdom and writing” do not take seriously the intellectual wealth of knowledge that existed in precolonial Southern Africa, let alone consider some sort of fidelity to the precolonial traditions in Southern Africa. All roads do not lead back to Kemet.)

The very word ‘graduate’ compels us to think seriously its early meanings of “taking a step”, whether it be towards something or the act of moving itself. We celebrate the movement of people’s growing intellectual life. More so, the steps they take as people in their personal and societal growth.

Boycotting graduation is not enough if it allows exclusionary histories and practices to prevail. The ceremony and physical space can reflect the very worlds we inhabit, that reflect ourselves and our people. How would ownership of the graduation process and historical, physical spaces look like? Perhaps involves a procession that starts at the lowest geographical point in the area, moves through different sections of the town (whose histories are made visible) and then up the hill to the monument. Maybe it starts at the monument and we then move into town where food is catered for all the town to enjoy and be a part of.

We want to decolonise our universities by taking seriously the physical space that manifests into social practices. This work can be done if we take seriously the history within which normalised practices emerge out of historical spaces.

UHURU Now logo courtesy of ARTicles by Sarah Rose de Villiers.